Transparency is among the most controversial topics in the public policy arena. So it’s surprising that few if any pundits latched onto the significance of a recent tweak by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) regarding how it runs its hearings.
Going forward, tweeted @CRTCeng, the names of Commissioners (the people exercising oversight impacting your cable and internet bills) appointed to public panels will be made public two weeks prior to the commencement of the hearing. Many people may understandably shrug at this, but it is a significant step toward creating a more level and accountable playing field.
Here’s why: Companies preparing for hearings prepare their teams for as many likely questions as possible from Commissioners analyzing their submissions. They know the areas of greatest interest that those Commissioners have displayed in the past and are therefore most likely to delve into again.
As regular observers of hearings such as the one going on this week in Gatineau are aware, some Commissioners may always want to know about the impact on French or English minorities while others may persistently inquire as to what the cost will be to average citizens, endlessly asking “how much will this cost?”
Still others may indulge in what to many appear to be lengthy, irrelevant monologues which will require patience and concentration to discern the question hidden within – if there is one.
Some get snippy. Some just read the script. Some do their own work. One or more might let you fudge an answer or dodge a question. Some have highly tuned b.s. detectors and others may appear to be just along for the ride, their disposition indiscernible.
So while the previous rule masking the identity of panel members before the commencement of a hearing was certainly applied equally, the fact of the matter was that those organizations with very sophisticated Ottawa-based regulatory and government affairs arms were always far more likely to have access to “leaks” from inside the CRTC than would smaller, regionally based teams.
Additionally, those appearing before a panel on the first day of a hearing were always going to be armed with a lower level of knowledge concerning the composition of a panel than those appearing later.
Just how widespread this differential may have been or to what extent it might apply to other public bodies would be better known to someone like new CRTC Chair Ian Scott (who played for both sides of the regulatory game) than to those of us who just worked the Commission side. That he acted indicates that the anonymity of Commissioners was problematic.
Some will no doubt argue that this might make the named Commissioners easy targets for extracurricular lobbying. It’s unlikely this will be a problem. Rather, naming will eliminate the snooping that regularly took place in the past. It will also have the impact of virtually sequestering those Commissioners involved immediately upon the announcement of their names.
One hopes Scott will continue along these lines. Previous attempts at accountability seemed restricted to pointing the public’s attention to the travel costs of regional commissioners (but not, heaven forbid, senior staff) and were transparent only in the revelation of their antipathy to their subjects and clumsily handled. There are actually a number of areas which should be of greater public value, concern and interest – not only for the CRTC but also for other institutions of similar nature.
These include the posting of minutes from all meetings at which decisions are made, the attendance at the same, a record of how each Commissioner voted and how long the meeting lasted. While many of my previous colleagues took a step back in salary to become Commissioners, they remain by most measures handsomely paid, frequently lightly occupied and should have no issue with being accountable for why debate on a $100-million issue – should such an event occur – took only five minutes and no one ever asked by how much it would make your bill go up.
Peter Menzies is a former newspaper publisher who served as a CRTC Commissioner for 10 years.
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